North Carolina’s “Rush to Frack”: Senate Bill 725’s Push to Relax Important Safeguards

March 20, 2013

Tuesday, March 19, 2013, by Holly Bannerman

Although Senate Bill 820 legalized fracking in North Carolina, the State has placed a moratorium on the issuance of permits for drilling until adequate environmental and public health safeguards are established. Impatient, some state legislators are now pushing to drill before these important protections are in place. 

Just months after fracking was legalized in North Carolina, state legislators are attempting to relax some of the safeguards in The Clean Energy and Economic Security Act (“Senate Bill 820”). On February 27, 2013, the North Carolina Senate approved Senate Bill 725 (“the bill”) by a 39-7 vote. Senate Bill 725 would authorize the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (“NCDENR”) to issue permits for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on or after March 1, 2015, without the approval of the legislature, as is currently required under state law. Specifically, the bill would repeal the section of Senate Bill 820 that places a moratorium on the issuance of permits for such drilling activities until the Mining and Energy Commission (“MEC”) establishes rules for implementation of a safe oil and gas regulatory program.

Several other provisions of the bill would make notable changes to relevant state natural gas laws. The bill permits the reuse of the fracturing fluid that returns to the surface, allowing drillers to inject the contaminated water back into the ground for further exploration of natural gas. Treatment of such contaminated wastewater would not be required before reuse. The bill also removes the state geologist from the MEC, encourages offshore drilling, repeals the law requiring landmen to register with the state, and streamlines the permitting process to a single permit, effectively removing checkpoints at which NCDENR could ensure there are no problems.
And so the debate over fracking continues. Calling the bill a “rush to frack,” opponents argue that before fracking commences, the legislature needs to adequately consider environmental, public health, energy, and job security concerns as well as threats to private property rights and establish necessary safeguards. Proponents are concerned that the energy industry will not invest in the state until it knows the moratorium will be lifted, postponing jobs and economic development.
The fate of Senate Bill 725 is still up in the air. On March 4, the bill passed its first reading in the House; its next stop is the Committee on Commerce and Job Development. Over the next few weeks, state lawmakers should consider—or reconsider— whether enacting this piece of legislation is in the best interest of the state. As the bill explicitly states, “It is the duty of State government to protect and preserve the State’s natural resources, cultural heritage, and quality of life and, above all, the public health and safety of its residents during the exploration, development, and production of domestic energy resources.” There is a great deal at stake, and moving too quickly is likely to do more harm than good; so, would relaxing several of the carefully negotiated safeguards under Senate Bill 820 undermine the bill’s own requirement? As Sierra Club state director Molly Diggins commented, “It’s one thing to send a message that North Carolina is open for business. It is yet another to spur oil and gas development by removing protections for the public.”